There’s something quite special about retro gaming, but having space and the setup to use multiple retro systems does take some effort. Here’s how I set my collection up.
Image: Chris L
I never actually planned to become a retro game collector. Actually, I don’t like the “collector” tag all that much anyway, because it tends towards the darker side of retro gaming where “collectible” titles gather dust in delicately sealed packets. I have a large number of old games and the systems to play them, not simply to stare at them.
There’s an issue with having a large number of games to play, however, because you need to have a system set up so that you can play them when the whim hits you. In my case that’s most days, and recently I did a tidy up of my games consoles to bring them into line and make them more accessible. To be specific, I now have (deep breath): Atari 7800 (which I found by the side of the road), Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Master System, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Megadrive with Mega CD, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox, Sega Dreamcast, Nintendo Gamecube, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Twelve consoles into a largely decrepit Philips LCD TV that doesn’t actually have that many inputs.
Get organised and limit cable clutter
The first step to setting up a decent retro gaming system concentrated around a single TV has nothing to do with the consoles or the TV.
It’s to do with the furniture. There are any number of TV cabinets you can buy, but most only have one or two apertures for snaking cables through. For older games systems especially, these are woefully inadequate, as you’ll not only run out of space, but risk a spaghetti style cable cluster when you do so. I favour an open backed cabinet style to enable cables to snake through without trouble. My own cabinet is of a style that I don’t think IKEA make any more (and of a name I cannot recall) but it’s roughly analogous to this Gettorp unit. If I wanted to go absolutely retro in my furniture I really should use a couple of sheets of particle board and some bricks in classic student style, but I’m not convinced such an arrangement would carry the weight properly.
The next issue to face is cable clutter. While HDMI has its downsides in terms of inbuilt DRM, it’s a much less cluttered approach than having separate audio and video cables for every single thing, not to mention a slightly thicker and thus less tangle-prone profile. There are all sorts of solutions to cable clutter that can involve tying cables together, and it’s very much a question of how you plan to access devices as to how you tame the little sods. My own solution revolves around the positioning that they take going into multiple switches and inputs, which segues nicely into…
Switches are your friends
Outside of the Xbox 360, which uses the sole HDMI port, everything else connected through was switched in one way or the other. For the 8-bit systems and the 7800, that involved RF coaxial cables running through each other, with the Atari plugging into the switch for the Master System which itself plugs into the switch for the NES. That needed a little tweaking to find the lineup that introduced the least static fuzz to images, and if I’m honest, it’s still something of a work in progress.
Everything else runs through three composite switching boxes running in serial, with a diagram to indicate which position relates to each individual console. Again, that’s a somewhat involved wiring job that came down to a certain amount of juggling based on the condition and length of cables, as well as the purchase of a replacement switching box when it became clear that one of my older switches was intermittently glitchy. One upside here is that switching boxes for composite inputs are quite cheap.
Composite on an LCD TV? Are you mad?
Quite possibly, but that’s not the point here. One of the realities of setting up something like this and having it workable, acceptable to other people in my house and affordable was that I had to make a few compromises. There are some systems in that lineup that are component-level happy, but the component inputs on the available TV aren’t at all reliable any more. For those systems that wull handle it, I’ve utilised S-Video rather than composite for a slightly cleaner image, but I can otherwise live with what it’s pumping out.
In an ideal world I’d have many of these systems going into a dedicated CRT, but my budget constraints — not to mention space — are already pretty stretched, so for now, a slight compromise is the best I can do.
Don’t forget somewhere to store the controllers
In an era where wireless controllers are the norm, it’s all too easy to forget that classic consoles used wired controllers, or if you were very stupid, expensive RF-based controllers that never worked very well.
Also the Wavebird, one of the all-time greatest controllers in the history of the known universe, right up there with the Saturn Nights controller and the classic SNES controller.
There’s no point in having systems set up if you can’t play them, but that many systems and controllers can quickly become tangled clutter. My general solution, because there’s only one output TV anyway, is to use a soft-topped box stool to store the controllers in, with cables gently wrapped up with rubber bands. It makes them easy to get out of the box when needed, keeps them organised and safe, and allows me to easily get on with the gameplay.
Couldn’t you do all this with emulators?
Leaving aside the thorny issue of legality when it comes to game ROMs… nah, bugger it, someone will ask the question, so here you go: You’re not allowed Game ROMs for titles you “own” in Australia, and here’s why.
That issue out of the way, why yes, you could emulate old systems if you so chose using (*cough*) legally free game images of your choosing. But there is something to making the commitment to sit down and play a specific game that will, in my experience, draw a lot more fun out of the experience. When you’re sitting in front of an emulator with hundreds of game images, the opportunity choice can be overwhelming, and you could always do something else on the same computer.
Popping a cartridge into a system is a choice to make, and you’ll play longer and, I find, enjoy for a greater span of time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, these cowboys won’t shoot themselves.